The Extreme Art Style of Tim Burton

By: Phoenix Robertson

Warning: This article contains movie spoilers for The Nightmare Before Christmas, Edward Scissorhands and Corpse Bride

Tim Burton. The king of creepy, the prince of preternatural, and the duke of the distressing and dark. Tim Burton is one of the largest names in horror films and has been since 1971, when he directed his first film, Houdini: The Untold Story. Burton has also become well known for his animated films and his strange artistic style. This art style includes exaggerated features on humanoid characters and overdrawn backdrops and landscapes with high color contrasts. In this article, I will discuss three examples of how Tim Burton’s creative art style, specifically when used to depict characters in his films, mirror the relationships that characters have with themselves and other characters in his films. 

Sally, The Nightmare Before Christmas

One of Tim Burton’s most notable animated films is The Nightmare Before Christmas, which tells the story of the citizens of Halloween Town and their king, Jack. One of the citizens of Halloween Town is Sally. Sally, voiced by Catherine O’Hara, is a rag-doll creature created by Mr. Finklestein, the mad scientist of Halloween Town. Sally was originally created by Mr. Finklestein to serve him as his maid-like “obedient daughter,” however her life goals are very different from the ones her creator concocted for her. Due to Sally’s construction as a Frankenstein-esque creature, she has the ability to break her body apart and control each piece of her body separately. For example, during the film, Sally detaches her hand from her body and her hand is able to move according to her will. Sally’s ability to detach and separately control each of her body parts is symbolic of the fact that she felt the consistent need to divide herself between her creator’s wishes and her own desires. 

Sally, and the entirety of The Nightmare Before Christmas film, was animated using stop motion, an animation process where figures are moved very slowly and photos are taken after each motion. These photos are then taken and edited together to create the illusion of the figures and backgrounds moving on their own. The stop-motion animation style added to the intriguing quality of Sally’s character and scenes. By being able to see every small motion made by the character in such high definition, it emphasizes the idea that Sally is constantly divided between what her creator wants and what she wants. 

The animation style in The Nightmare Before Christmas works to create a persistently eerie and “Halloween-y” vibe throughout the film, no matter the location of the characters. For the majority of the film, the color palette is very dark, full of reds, greens, and blacks; whereas, Sally’s color scheme is different. Sally’s color scheme consists mostly of primary colors, which are much brighter than the film’s general color scheme. This demonstrates the differences between Sally and the other citizens of Halloween Town. 

Edward, Edward Scissorhands

Released in 1990, Edward Scissorhands is the story of a science experiment gone horribly right. When a man created a humanoid creature out of mechanical parts but died before the creature was completed, the creature decided to complete itself with a pair of hands made of sharp knives and scissors. This creature is Edward Scissorhands. This film, with a starring cast of Winona Rider and Johnny Depp, is a social commentary on the way that society treats those that are different from the social norm. Throughout the course of the movie, Edward is described as a creature to be feared and fixed, rather than respected and loved.

  While Edward Scissorhands is not an animated movie (unlike the other Tim Burton films discussed in this article) the aesthetics of the film are very similar to Burton’s other films. The main aspects of the aesthetics of Edward Scissorhands are high color contrasts and eerie imagery. Examples of high color contrast in this film are the large complementing clash between the pastel colors worn by the members of the town in this film and Edward’s black and white costume. Examples of the eerie imagery include the dream-like appearance of the town in the film, which provides an alarming variation to the set of Edward’s home. The large difference in the color schemes and sets used in this film further the apparent differences between Edward and the townspeople. 

The costume of Edward Scissorhands, played by Johnny Depp, also furthers the themes of the film. Throughout the course of the film, Edward gains more scars on his face due to incidents with his razor sharp hands. These scars  represent that only Edward’s claws ever harmed himself, and this was due to Edward having to do everything himself,considering he was an outcast by the majority of people who encountered him. In conclusion, the use of color contrast and eerie imagery in this film, which are in line with Burton’s artistic style, help to further the idea of division between Edward and the townspeople, as well as to further the idea that Edward was being ostracized by the majority of people around him. 

Emilly, Corpse Bride

The final film I will discuss today is the Corpse Bride. Released in 2005, Corpse Bride is the story of Victor, a living man, and Emily, a dead woman. Victor has been placed in an arranged marriage by his parents between himself and a young woman in town, Victoria Everglot. One night, Victor goes into the forest to practice for his wedding, and his practice results in the awakening of a dead woman, Emily. Emily believes that Victor truly loves her and takes him into the underworld with all of the other souls of the dead to marry him. The film concludes with Victor being able to marry Victoria and Emily enacting revenge on her murderer. 

Similarly to The Nightmare Before Christmas, the entire Corpse Bride film was created using stop motion. The specific process included making puppets made of steel skeletons covered with a silicon skin, while the animators photographed scenes one frame at a time. The appearance of each puppet or character in the film mirrored an aspect of their personality. The exaggerated facial and bodily features of each character in the world of the dead often mirrored an aspect of their life in the world of the living. For example, Emily’s character is always dressed in a white wedding gown with frayed hems and a handful of wilting flowers. She also has a large stab wound on her torso, presumably this was the cause of her death. Emily’s fraying clothes represent her inability to let go of the fairytale-like love story that she searched for throughout the course of the film. Her facial features, which are also in cue with Tim Burton’s personal style, paint Emily to be a hopeful damsel in distress, as can be seen by her alluring and appealing face. In this film, as opposed to The Nightmare Before Christmas and Edward Scissorhands, Burton’s artistic style was used to portray each character’s personal struggles with letting go of their past struggles. 

Final Thoughts and Criticisms

As great as Tim Burton and his films are, they are far from perfect. Despite having made numerous amazing films, his films still lack the representation of people of color in horror. The vast majority of Tim Burton’s characters are white and, if they have any role at all, characters of color are never in string roles. As much as I love Tim Burton’s films and art style, which has its roots in German expressionism, I wish that he could incorporate more characters and cast more actors and actresses of color. This would also help his films to reach a greater audience, as more people would feel represented and,thus, more inclined to view his films. 

Thank you for reading this article, and I hope that you enjoyed learning more about the many meanings behind Tim Burton’s eccentric art style. Happy Halloween and comment your favorite Tim Burton film below!


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